Reform schools find a haven here
By Matthew Franck
Of the Post-Dispatch
11/17/2002 02:43 PM
Teens are sent to religious reform schools in Missouri from all over the
nation by the hundreds, but no one knows exactly how many.
They are confined for months or years on at least a half-dozen remote, rural campuses, but no one knows the precise number of schools that dot the state's woods and farmlands.
The teens are plunged into a regimen of Bible discipline - where some say they are paddled daily for misbehavior, where several schools ban them from dialing a phone, and where workers screen all outgoing mail.
Many have emerged years later to recount stories of mistreatment and ridicule; others praise the ministries for reclaiming them from the despair of street life.
But state authorities can't know how all these teens are treated. And that's how Missouri lawmakers want it.
Missouri is one of a handful of states that do not require faith-based child residential facilities to get a state license. So unless officials are investigating a report of child abuse, state authorities cannot inspect the reform schools, monitor their quality or know how many they enroll or where they are.
As a result, Missouri has become a magnet for a breed of strict schools that could not operate in most other states. In fact, several of the reform schools have come to Missouri after being exiled elsewhere.
Chief among them is Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy near Patterson, Mo., a ministry that shut down in Mississippi in 1986 after years of abuse allegations, legal proceedings and a court order to remove all of its students.
More than two dozen former students interviewed by the Post-Dispatch say they were mistreated by the ministry. Some - particularly those who attended in Mississippi - recount heavy paddlings, and many women say their menstrual cycles were interrupted at the school, presumably because of stress.
"Your inner self is destroyed from the moment you walk in the door," said Collin Poetting, who attended Mountain Park from 1994 to 1996.
Still, Mountain Park has prospered in Missouri. Parents praise the school's strict approach for rescuing their children when no one else could.
"Our child met Christ at this institution," said David Schock of Grand Haven, Mich., whose son attends the school. "In terms of changing his life, it was close to a miracle - no, it was a miracle."
Mountain Park and similar schools have for years been able to defeat legislative efforts to regulate them. By citing religious freedom, the schools have counted on the support of a legislature that is hesitant to interfere with faith-based institutions.
That hands-off approach stood even after a student at Mountain Park was killed in 1996 by three others, apparently in a plot to take over the school.
Since then, the unregulated teen reform industry has boomed in Missouri.
In the past six years alone, at least four rigid reform schools have opened in the state, attracting hundreds of teens from across the country.
Among the larger new schools are Agape Boarding School, which enrolls 125 boys near Stockton; Thanks to Calvary Boarding School, with 65 boys and girls near Devil's Elbow; and Heartland Christian Academy, with about 150 boys and girls near Bethel. And judging from the expansion plans of several ministries, the state's faith-based teen reform industry is thriving.
Thriving, because the schools have tapped into a niche market of desperate parents, many of whom got results and spread the word.
Thriving, because those parents are willing to gamble as much as $14,000 a year on the hope that strict discipline will rescue their uncontrollable children.
But thriving most of all because year after year Missouri lawmakers have rejected legislation that would require the schools to obtain state licenses.
Here, the schools have friends in the Legislature who passionately defend the ministries and their religious rights amid continued allegations of abuse.
Here, the schools have found a safe harbor.
A shared formula
If Missouri's unregulated reform schools have anything in common, it's seclusion.
The schools are set up in the far corners of rural Missouri, and many can be found only by traveling down obscure gravel roads. Mountain Park, for example, is so remote that even the postal worker in nearby Patterson struggles to give meaningful directions.
The isolation is intentional, and the schools' low profiles are protected under state law. An unlicensed program in Missouri is not required to register with the state or even present proof that it is a faith-based institution that should be exempt from regulation.
"Even knowing where these homes are would be a start," said Carmen Schulze of the Missouri Coalition of Children's Agencies. "But I can't even get a list."
Several of the unlicensed schools are founded on a simple premise: the radical separation of teens from their lifestyles.
It's an approach that appeals to religious and nonreligious parents.
Administrators of the schools say only a portion of their clients are actively religious. More often, they say, they cater to parents who simply want a form of discipline that they cannot find at traditional treatment centers.
Some already have tried professional counseling. Others cannot afford professionally licensed residential programs, which often cost more than $30,000 a year.
Four of the larger unlicensed schools - Heartland, Mountain Park, Agape and Thanks to Calvary - follow a remarkably similar formula.
Each requires that parents enroll children for a minimum of a year.
Students adhere to a strict schedule that includes hours of worship and chores. They are told that their problems are rooted in sin, not diagnosable illnesses. And they are punished for failing to memorize passages of Scripture or for having the wrong attitude.
They can receive phone calls only from their parents, and even then only for a few minutes every two weeks. Letters they write are screened by staff, though many former students of Mountain Park say they also were censored.
Those tactics are at odds with the way most faith-based children's group homes operate. Numerous religious homes for youths in Missouri have willingly sought state licenses and complied with standards on treatment.
For example, administrators of the Evangelical Children's Home in north St. Louis County and the Missouri Baptist Children's Home in Bridgeton say state standards are sensible and do not infringe on their desire to mix therapy with religion.
Only licensed homes can get state funding and serve children in state custody.
But Mountain Park and other strict reform schools are a separate breed of faith-based program - one that has no interest in state funding or regulations.
They are supported by tuition and donations. And because the schools are unregulated, they can operate almost entirely on their own terms.
The schools hire whomever they want, regardless of credentials. They shun modern psychotherapy and require that children empty bottles of Ritalin and Prozac before enrolling. They control a youth's mode of worship, communication and behavior in a way that no licensed program or even juvenile detention center could.
But that's not to say the schools have completely skirted government involvement. Because the schools are still subject to child abuse laws, officials have the authority to investigate reports of mistreatment. And several schools have been stung by allegations.
A limited view
At Hope Baptist Church and Boarding Academy, a small school that had enrolled fewer than a dozen boys in St. James, a pastor is facing felony abuse charges for repeatedly paddling a student.
And at Heartland Christian Academy, several workers were charged with criminal child abuse for forcing youths to shovel in deep manure as a punishment and for excessive paddling. But nearly all those charges have been dropped or dismissed by juries.
Administrators of the schools say the abuse inquiries illustrate that even though their operations are not licensed, the state has enough authority to keep their ministries in line.
"The state has every law it needs to inspect a school like this," said Jim Clemensen, who operates Agape Boarding School.
Heartland founder Charles N. Sharpe is more critical of the state's intervention. He describes those who have investigated him as "evil."
And like many pastors at the state's reform schools, Sharpe blames society and its public institutions for destroying youths. He said he's merely trying to clean up the mess.
"Abuse is kids on drugs and alcohol, and it's 13-year-olds getting pregnant," Sharpe said.
Heartland, along with Agape and Thanks to Calvary, allowed a reporter to visit and interview students recently. Inside, numerous teens praised the ministries and could be seen hugging and laughing with school leaders.
"I know I'm changing, but when I first got here I was at my worst," said Leigha, who has attended Heartland for over a year.
The visits also turned up signs of the reform schools' rigor.
At Heartland, several boys said they have been paddled nearly every day for bad behavior. Others said they would escape if they could, even if it meant being sent to the harshest juvenile detention facility.
Getting a complete picture of how reform schools truly operate is impossible.
Because the newer schools have been open for less than six years, they have few graduates who can speak freely of their time there. Some of the schools are so young, in fact, that most of their original students still are enrolled in the program.
But Mountain Park is different.
Mountain Park has hundreds of alumni who have sorted through experiences for years.
Mountain Park has a history.
A troubling history
The school's past is relived today by numerous former students who say they were mistreated at the school.
Mountain Park administrators would not grant interviews or allow the Post-Dispatch to tour their facilities and meet with students. The school did provide a list of supportive parents and alumni who in interviews dismissed critics as a vocal minority.
But the school's detractors have congregated by the dozens in Internet support groups. Their accounts are consistent with one another and span decades of the ministry. They also are backed by numerous former students who are quoted in court documents and news articles.
Each attended either Mountain Park, which opened in Missouri in 1987, or Bethesda Home for Girls and Redemption Ranch for Boys, which were operated by Mountain Park founders Bob and Betty Wills from the early 1970s to 1987 in Hattiesburg, Miss.
Some former students told the Post-Dispatch of severe corporal punishment, including so-called "board parties," where they said several students received as many as 50 swats. There is some evidence the school has curtailed its use of the paddle in the past few years, but the school's tactics continue to come under fire.
This summer, a suit filed by Jordan Blair, an Arkansas teen, claimed the school abused him by cutting off communication to his lawyer, limiting him to two bathroom visits a day, and administering various forms of corporal punishment on boys at the school.
Those kinds of allegations date nearly to the ministry's inception in Mississippi.
In 1982, civil rights lawyer Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, became aware of a pregnant 19-year-old who claimed she was being swatted and denied the right to leave.
In the court proceedings that followed, several students would testify of abuse. A medical expert also testified that nearly half of the female students had menstrual complications because of intense stress.
Court documents include accounts of a girl who was reportedly swatted 25 to 30 times. Her offense: slashing her wrists in an apparent suicide attempt.
Dees' efforts resulted in a court settlement in which the school agreed to tone down its use of corporal punishment, allow students to communicate freely through mail and telephones, and report any menstrual problems to parents. The agreement came with no admission of wrongdoing by the ministry, and no employees were charged with criminal child abuse.
But Bob Wills refused to abide by the settlement and was convicted of contempt of court.
Ultimately, the state decided in 1986 to remove from the home 117 teens, dozens of whom described some form of mistreatment.
That final act sent the Willses to Missouri, where friendly laws gave the ministry a new start.
Dan Wise was the interim youth court judge who ordered the state to remove teens from the Mississippi schools. When he learned that the schools' founders planned to move to Missouri, he sent documents to Missouri officials warning of the schools' history.
But Wise and others say Missouri had no interest in the information. "We were told real quick that Missouri can take care of itself," said Erik Lowrey, a lawyer who worked for years to close the Mississippi ministry.
Today, Mountain Park and similar reform schools are flourishing in Missouri. And they have the support of federal and state courts, which have historically supported parents in their right to raise and educate their children almost entirely as they see fit.
Parents pick the school and pick the church, and when their child gets out of control, they decide whether to turn to a therapist or to a member of the clergy.
That fundamental principle has long been a key legal defense of religious reform schools like those in Missouri.
Lawyer David Gibbs III has defended numerous religious teen programs nationwide. He said the fact that teens at the schools are compelled to worship a certain way or spend hours memorizing the Bible isn't relevant. If society didn't allow parents to make decisions against their children's wishes, few would attend school.
But Gibbs acknowledges that while a teen's rights are limited, a parent's rights are not limitless. Parents, he said, cannot legally send children to a place that abuses children.
The question is what constitutes abuse.
Bob Schwartz, who heads the Juvenile Law Association in Philadelphia, said there's "no clear line" when it comes to determining how much liberty can be taken away from a youth before he or she has been abused.
"Those boundaries are not precisely drawn," said Schwartz, whose nonprofit group defends the legal rights of children.
What is clear is that teens at reform schools have far fewer rights than children convicted of crimes by the courts. Teens in a juvenile detention center have access to legal representation, and the system is structured to make sure children are placed in the right kind of program.
University of Florida law professor Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, a leading authority on juvenile law issues, favors legislative reforms that would give children a right to a hearing before parents send them to a highly restrictive reform school.
In most states, teens at a reform school would at least have the assurance that a treatment program was licensed and inspected. Backers of such regulation say the approach lets parents remain in control while allowing the state to make sure children are safe.
For years, child advocacy groups and operators of licensed residential facilities in Missouri have called for at least minimum standards for the programs. And their concerns are amplified with each new allegation of abuse. But in legislative hearings, pastors from the unlicensed homes have testified of their programs' effectiveness, arguing that government interference would force them to shut down.
Reforms have failed, most recently a bill that would have merely required the reform schools to register with the state.
Some credit the political influence of Sharpe, who is one of the state's leading political contributors.
But others say the resistance roots from a more general distaste for regulation among Missouri lawmakers, especially when those regulations deal with faith-based institutions.
"Something mentioned in the name of religion is held in high esteem and sacred trust," said state Sen. Pat Dougherty, D-St. Louis, who has favored regulation for years.
Mountain Park's legislative supporters include state Sen. Bill Foster, R-Poplar Bluff, who was pictured in a recent school newsletter and defended the school's track record in a Missouri Senate hearing this year.
Foster said in an interview last week that he has visited Mountain Park several times and has spoken to numerous parents and students who praise the ministry. "I would not try to protect anybody," he said. "I say it like I see it."
Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, said he has yet to see a reason why the reform schools should be licensed. "You would have to make a compelling case for them to be regulated," he said.
But Kinder said he was unaware of Mountain Park's history in Mississippi. When told of the allegations of abuse from former students, he said he would be open to investigating the issue and would not rule out favoring some sort of regulation.
A suit filed this summer seeks to change how Mountain Park does business by asking a federal judge to mandate reforms.
That legal technique ultimately shut down the Mountain Park ministry when it operated in Mississippi. But something else was happening in Mississippi that ultimately led to the closure of Bethesda.
Over the years, as teens escaped the Mississippi home to tell of abuse and mistreatment, local authorities grew suspicious.
So when runaways were picked up, the local sheriff eventually stopped taking them back to the school. Instead, they wound up in Lowery's office, and the lawyer often would win their release.
Students run away from Mountain Park, too, into the deep forest or toward the neighboring small towns.
Wayne County Sheriff Larry W. Plunkett guesses his officers pick up a few a year. They complain about the school, he said.
But he hasn't heard anything that would lead him to believe they are being abused. Teens with their background, he said, are bound to complain about rules and discipline.
So the runaways are rounded up in a squad car and hauled back up the long gravel road to Mountain Park, leaving their stories of life inside to be told another day.
Reporter Matthew Franck:
The Graduates, divided between 'survivors,' supporters
By Matthew Franck
Of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
11/18/2002 02:06 AM
Nearly 20 years later, Cheryl Wright and Cindy Tindle Restivo remember the swats that never seemed to
end, and with each stinging blow, the required reply of "Thank you, mama."
Linda Morrison Carlyle was spared the paddle in the early 1980s but saw the grapefruit-size bruises on
her classmates' legs and backs.
Casie Compton's duty seven years ago was to accompany a 13-year-old who was paddled regularly
until she stopped crying for her mother.
They are, by their accounts, alumni of the same nightmare. And they are haunted not just by the strict
discipline, but the control, and with it the loneliness of being trapped where letters home were
censored, where friendships were cut off and where you couldn't talk about your past, your struggles
and your hurt.
Yet, many of their classmates tell it differently, recalling a loving ministry that saved them from the
dangers of youth.
"I'm glad I went, I needed to get away from where I was," said Erin Allen of Stockbridge, Ga. "It
completely changed my life."
Each is among the hundreds who have enrolled at Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy, near
Poplar Bluff, Mo., and other teen reform homes run by Bob and Betty Wills and their family over the past
Throughout its history, the ministry has been praised by satisfied families and condemned by former
students and government officials. In 1986, abuse allegations led a judge to remove teens from reform
schools operated by the Willses in Mississippi
Today, Mountain Park operates in Missouri free of regulation, and many say their children were
reclaimed by the school's mix of Bible teachings and corporal punishment.
Supporters say the work of separating teens from a dangerous and even deadly lifestyle can't always
be pretty, and they dismiss critics as a loud but small minority who refused to accept the help the school
Many happy alumni maintain close ties with school administrators. They send them Christmas cards,
wedding announcements and baby photos.
But for other former students, Mountain Park is a dark trench they can't climb out of. They call
themselves "survivors." They huddle on Internet support groups by the dozens. They pay therapists to
treat their stress. They bemoan the fact that no one - not even their loved ones - can seem to fully
understand what the school took from them.
"They took away everything and anything that you once believed were important to you," said Carrie
Nutt, who attended from 1994 to 1995. In an interview, she said the most traumatizing thing is that the
school took her freedom, "down to your ability to express your emotions - who you are and how you
Former students by the dozens share similar accounts of ridicule and excessive discipline. Their stories
are consistent with one another and often are backed up by court documents and news reports
chronicling more than two decades of the ministry.
Mountain Park administrators will not grant an interview or allow the news media to tour their school.
But that doesn't mean that the school's operations are a mystery.
Critics and supporters alike agree on the school's basic tactics, most of which are spelled out in the
Mountain Park's stated goal, in a nutshell, is to separate teens from the ungodly.
The ministry dates to the 1970s, when the Willses operated the Bethesda Home for Girls and
Redemption Ranch for Boys near Hattiesburg, Miss. Over the years, the reform schools have typically
enrolled about 125 to 200 students at a time, about three-fourths of whom are girls.
Few teens go willingly to Mountain Park, unless they are tricked. Some are taken by force by
bodyguards or transport services that take teens from their beds and drive them across the country in
sedans with safety locks.
Carrie Nutt went reluctantly to Mountain Park in 1994, but she wasn't bound and forced to the school.
She hoped the place might bring peace to what had been a troubled adolescence.
She wanted an end to the screaming fights with parents over curfews, her marijuana use and sexual
activity. She was weary of the counseling that went nowhere, and the dead-end treatment programs.
So when her parents had come to the end of their rope, when they had picked a boarding school with a
tranquil name hundreds of miles from their home in Seattle, Nutt relented.
As she approached the school for the first time on an August morning, she even got a little excited,
envisioning the serene intellectual setting of a New England college-prep school.
Today, she can recount each detail of her rude awakening.
She remembers the heavily perfumed lobby and dainty flowered wallpaper that didn't match her image
of a preppy boarding school.
She remembers seeing the word "Baptist" in the school's name for the first time and wondering why her
nonreligious parents would drop her off at a religious school.
She remembers being escorted downstairs to a dorm room where she asked girls in culottes and
T-shirts lots of questions. Some refused to engage in conversation, others offered rehearsed takes on
the sinful world outside, leaving little doubt about what life inside the school would be like.
When Nutt panicked and tried to leave, the other girls gained control of her with the methodical
orchestration of bees in a hive.
She was told she had 60 seconds to say goodbye to her parents, which she used to scream and beg
to go back home. As her parents walked away, she ran after them, before being restrained and brought
Nutt said she was taken to the shower. She and other former students say they were observed by
workers as they shed their teen fashions, trading pants for skirts, and halter tops for modest blouses.
Nutt said she was criticized for her "worldly" underwear.
And with that, Nutt was introduced to Mountain Park's time-tested formula for treating resistant teens.
The school's parent handbook outlines the basics.
All new students are placed on orientation, where they cannot be more than a few feet away from their
For the first few weeks, students can speak to virtually no one and their communication with family
members is cut off. After three weeks, their parents can call, but even then only for 10 minutes every
two weeks. Parents cannot visit the school for three months, and students cannot go home for a year.
Parents are warned to anticipate complaints and allegations of mistreatment and are provided a script to
deal with such confrontations. If their children continue complaining, they are coached to hang up the
Outgoing mail is screened; many former students say they also were prevented from complaining about
Throughout the day, students follow a rigid schedule in which they rarely control even five minutes of
Each day, students spend hours in religious instruction and are required to memorize three verses of
the Bible, with a long-term goal of memorizing several dozen chapters by graduation.
For academics, the school uses a Bible-based curriculum called Schools of Tomorrow. Students study
individually in cubicles at their own pace using workbooks and prepared tests. Many students said they
never saw a teacher give a lecture.
Those who don't go along with the routines are punished in a variety of ways. Some are given more
chores, some are made to write out lines, and others are paddled.
And the handbook leaves little doubt of the myriad ways students can fall under condemnation. Even if
students memorize every verse, complete every chore and sing every hymn, they can be punished for
Kathy Neville, whose son attends Mountain Park, said she knows the school's methods may sound
severe. But Neville, who does not share the school's fundamentalist faith, said she had tried everything
to turn around her son, including professional therapy.
Neville, of Grand Haven, Mich., is a lawyer and former social worker who says she has worked for
years in jobs related to mental health.
She won't discuss the specifics of her son's condition but says he needs an extraordinarily rigid
environment, with hard rules and predictable routines. He also needs to be isolated from negative peer
pressure, which is something state-run juvenile programs were unable to provide.
"The kind of structure they have in their program is very consistent with good behavioral practice," she
She and other parents also support the limits on communication. Neville said she knows her boy and is
certain his correspondence is honest and candid. He recently was allowed to visit home and never
uttered a bad word about the school, Neville said.
Some parents say the limits on mail and phone calls are rigid, but they ultimately help parents rebuild
lines of communication that have been severed by years of rebellion.
"We had more communication with (our son) with letters once a week than we ever did before he went
there," said Debbie Amsden of Indiana. "Before, he wasn't communicating at all."
Amsden credits Mountain Park with turning her troubled, uncontrollable son into a loving, well-adjusted
student at Purdue University.
Some former students of Mountain Park say they fought the school's methods when they entered the
school, but they recognize now that they needed the strict approach. Several question whether they
would even be alive if there had been no Mountain Park.
"It wasn't what I wanted, but it was what I needed," said Naomi Nelson, who graduated this year.
Many graduates are puzzled when they hear criticisms of the school, wondering whether detractors -
whom they knew as classmates - are even describing the same place.
But none of that surprises students like Nutt, who say that in a sense, there really were two Mountain
Parks: one for those who found salvation in the program and one for those who suffered at the
Troubling track record
Court documents and news reports describe a darker side of the ministry - one that dates back more
than two decades.
Before Bob and Betty Wills founded Mountain Park in 1987, they were hit with a barrage of abuse
allegations as operators of the Bethesda Home for Girls and Redemption Ranch for Boys near
Throughout much of the 1980s, the Willses came under fire from civil rights lawyer Morris Dees, whose
clients included a pregnant 19-year-old who said she was paddled.
Cindy Tindle Restivo of Baton Rouge, La., is among the girls who left the Bethesda Home for Girls with
the lawyer's help and testified of abuse before a federal court. She told the Post-Dispatch that she once
was paddled so hard that she passed out.
Wright, who attended Bethesda from 1983 to 1985, said in an interview that girls were called into
"board parties," where she and others were swatted as many as 50 times in one session.
Court testimony also included accounts of a girl who was paddled for slashing her wrists in an
apparent suicide attempt.
Ultimately, the Willses left Mississippi after the state removed 117 teens from their schools. Today,
several former students of the homes in Mississippi and Missouri say in interviews they were regularly
paddled, and numerous women say they had complications with menstruation, presumably because of
Students who left the school within the past few years say they believe the school has curtailed its use
of the paddle. Still, the handbook asks parents to authorize swats, and Compton said paddling was the
norm throughout her stay from 1994 to 1996.
But for most of the unhappy former students, the misery of the schools wasn't physical but emotional.
They say the school sought to defeat their individuality, eradicate their privacy and smother
Carlyle attended Bethesda Home for Girls in 1983. She's also a former Marine who is familiar with boot
camp tactics. But Carlyle, of Wheaton, Mo., said that in the military - even with its strict discipline - she
was able to hang on to her own identity.
"The military breaks you down and builds you back up," Carlyle said in an interview. "This place does
not build you back up."
School supporters disagree, saying that students are restored to a fulfilling life in Christ.
Angela Collier, who attended Mountain Park from 1992 to 1994, say students who didn't accept the
school's belief system were lost.
Collier, of Tulsa, Okla., recently launched a Web page for Mountain Park "survivors." Through her efforts
to close the school, she said she has met with more than 50 former students who say they were
mistreated by the ministry. .
Several interviewed recall that girls who were deemed to "behave like a baby" were made to sit on a
baby stool and wear a pacifier around their necks.
Many recent former students say that kind of ridicule continues today. Currently, the Willses' daughter
and son-in-law, Debby and Sam Gerhardt, operate Mountain Park. Recent students say Debby Gerhardt
regularly holds "powwows," in which she offers biting criticism of girls in front of others.
"The more you hide in the background, the less you have to endure," Collier said.
Salvation at a cost
The driving force behind the punishments and ridicule, some former students say, was a constant
pressure to accept Jesus and become saved before graduation.
And curiously, even some who criticize almost everything about Mountain Park say that in their quiet
moments of reflection, they were, in fact, spiritually saved.
Carlyle is among those who said she found Jesus in her isolation and despair. But she kept that private.
"I didn't want the Willses to take credit for saving me," she said.
Supporters say the salvation is genuine for most of those leaving Mountain Park. More often than not,
they line up at graduation in front of parents, pastors and civic leaders to testify about how Mountain
Park reclaimed them from the ashes of their past.
And those praises are repeated by students and parents in issue after issue of the school's newsletter.
But some former students like Carrie Nutt have praised the school profusely in the past as well. Not long
after her parents left her at the school, she decided to fake it, to wear a smile, pretend she was saved
and quietly mark her time until she could leave
At graduation, just like the others, she said what everyone wanted to hear about her rescued soul.
Nutt's parents kept her in the school for three months after graduation. Seven years later, she said she
hasn't fully left the place.
Not when the nightmares of being stuck inside continue to invade her sleep. Not when remembering
how to interact in the real world is a struggle. Not when she still isn't completely sure where to invest
her faith and trust.
"You come out of Mountain Park confused and lost," she said, "because you don't know anything
Reporter Matthew Franck:
A father's choice: Dale Knowlton sent his unruly sons to a religious boarding school, but he
now regrets that decision
By Matthew Franck
Of the Post-Dispatch
11/19/2002 03:15 AM
The two men Dale Knowlton hired to abduct his 16-year-old son showed up as planned at his home
near Kansas City at 4 a.m. sharp.
Because Knowlton was nervous, because he wanted the regrettable work over and done, he met the
men in the middle of his yard, before they even reached his doorstep.
As the father greeted the near strangers who would take away his defiant and suicidal son, he felt
crushed by failure. That it had come to this. That he really was out of options. That no one - not
therapists, not insurance companies, not the juvenile justice system - gave him any choice but to have
his son taken by force to a religious reform school across the state.
Knowlton had sought out the men from California after he first heard of "escort services" that do
nothing but transport problem teens to treatment programs. He was relieved that the obscure industry
could help but devastated to be one its clients.
"It was the most horrendous decision of my life," he said
Several days and $2,500 later, he was letting the men in his home and going over the protocol they had
discussed in numerous phone calls.
He took them directly to his sleeping son, turned on the light, and repeated a rehearsed line that went
something like: "Corey, I love you very much, but we both know that you need help. These guys are
here to help you."
Knowlton left the house immediately, mainly because he was instructed to do so beforehand. But he
also needed an exit from the protests and biting words he suspected would erupt from his son.
"It's almost like you are witnessing your own failure as a parent," he said.
Within minutes, Knowlton and his girlfriend were at a restaurant, wondering about Corey and his
five-hour car ride to Hope Baptist Church and Boarding School, in St. James, Mo.
The torturous wait ended when one of the men from the escort service called to say Corey had arrived
safely. By midday, Knowlton once again hoped that his son, who had seemed to fall through every
crack in the system, finally would get some help.
He would keep that hope alive right up until Corey jumped through a window after being paddled by the
school's operator, the Rev. Joseph Intagliata. The broken glass left Corey with dozens of stitches in his
arms, hands and legs. The pastor is facing criminal abuse charges for excessively paddling Corey.
Knowlton is among the hundreds of parents who send their children to Missouri's religious reform
schools from across the country. Here, the schools are unregulated and a few have a history of abuse
Many parents seek out the schools specifically because they offer a biblical solution for their child's
behavioral problems. Those parents aren't interested in professional therapy, preferring to turn their kids
around with a mix of tough love and doctrinal teachings.
Nikki Cherry of Kingwood, Texas, sent her daughter to Mountain Park near Poplar Bluff, Mo., because
she believed her teen would find the Lord and turn her life around. And that's exactly what she said
But many other parents have little in common philosophically with the strict reform schools they pick for
their kids. Administrators of the schools in Missouri say the vast majority of their clients do not share
their faith. Several of those parents interviewed by the Post-Dispatch say the faith-based approach
was the right fit for their children and they have been delighted by the results.
But for others the religious reform schools aren't a first choice. They sign up with trepidation because
they feel they have no other options.
The parents occupy what mental health advocates describe as a no man's land when it comes to
services for teens with behavioral problems.
The parents are turned away from the juvenile justice system because their kids have not committed
serious crimes. Their health insurance covers only a few counseling sessions. Government mental
health programs are no help, because they serve mostly children in state custody. And the parents
can't get public schools to offer much more than a few special education classes.
So the parents go it alone, seeking out whatever programs they can afford, making compromises along
That's where Knowlton found himself two years ago when his son began what he describes as a
sudden but sustained fit of defiance. At first, Corey missed curfews, then he began to steal from the
family. Soon he stayed away all night and then for days at a time.
Finally, in two separate instances, he attempted suicide.
Initially, Knowlton turned to his health insurance and was able to get Corey both inpatient and outpatient
counseling. But his benefits ran out.
Like so many other parents, he tried the family courts and state mental health programs with no luck.
Then he heard of a pastor who operated a home for a handful of boys.
Knowlton, who has been a public school teacher for 25 years, opposes corporal punishment. But by
the time he had placed Corey at Hope Baptist, he was willing to sacrifice that objection.
He talked to Intagliata several times on the phone and deemed him to be a sincere man who genuinely
wanted to help.
"You hit dead end after dead end, and then there's this little beacon of hope, so you take it," he said.
Experts in the field of adolescent mental health say they sympathize with parents, who often fear their
defiant teens are threatening the safety of themselves and others.
Parents "are absolutely desperate," said Vince Hillyer, who heads Missouri Boys and Girls Town, a
licensed facility. "They are in a crisis and they can't think clearly."
Even if parents take the time to research treatment alternatives, they often come up dry.
"I don't know of any good options for these parents," said Tom Kennedy, an Alton lawyer who helps
parents fight for additional special education services from school districts.
A study published this fall in the American Journal of Psychiatry reports that over three-fourths of
children who need mental health services are not receiving them. In many cases, parents - including
some in Missouri - have actually relinquished custody of their children to the state so they can receive
More often, however, they turn to a booming teen behavior modification industry. In the past 15 years
alone, hundreds of specialized boarding schools and wilderness programs have cropped up across the
country. By some conservative estimates, at least 35,000 teens enroll in such programs nationwide.
"I can't think of anything else in the area of education that has exploded so quickly," said Mark Sklarow,
who heads the Independent Education Consultants Association.
Increasingly, parents hire education consultants to recommend programs. More often than not, they
favor "emotional growth" programs, which hire professional therapists. But the cost is prohibitive, often
running well in excess of $5,000 a month.
"Obviously, those parents who have more money have more choices in this area," said John
McLaughlin of the Brown Schools, a Nashville, Tenn., chain of 33 emotional-growth schools serving
about 1,500 children.
McLaughlin said many middle-income families mortgage homes and deplete retirement accounts to enroll
children at expensive programs.
Others turn to cheaper alternatives, such as shorter duration boot camps, wilderness programs or
boarding homes that offer rigid structure but little or no professional counseling.
Ken Kaye, of La Verkin, Utah, heads what is likely the largest chain of such schools in the nation. The
so-called World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools comprises a dozen campuses
enrolling 2,000 students. The centers charge about half what emotional-growth schools charge.
"I can't see it doing anything else but continuing to grow," Kaye said.
Still, the enterprise has long been the subject of various abuse investigations, including at offshore
campuses in West Samoa and Jamaica that critics say were set up to avoid U.S. regulations.
In Missouri, meanwhile, unregulated religious reform schools have stepped in to fill an unsatisfied need
among parents like Knowlton.
If Knowlton had $5,000 a month for a professional residential counseling program, he would have spent
it on his son in an instant. But he did what he could, rounding up the $1,100 a month that Intagliata
charged to enroll a teen at Hope Baptist.
"There was nowhere to go," Knowlton said. "At least he was willing to help."
Intagliata has repeatedly said he is innocent of the felony abuse charges. He said he paddled boys only
rarely and with little force. After disciplining Corey Knowlton, he said, the boy flew into a rage and
jumped though a window. Nearly all the injuries were from broken glass, though state records also cite
deep bruising on the teen's backside.
Intagliata said he would proudly stack up his record treating teens against any state-run or
state-licensed program. Several parents interviewed by the Post-Dispatch have praised the pastor's
But the pastor said he realizes Corey was probably the wrong fit for his program. That's not to say
Intagliata believes there were better options. "There are no other alternatives out there," he said.
Intagliata's reform school was initially barred from enrolling teens after the criminal charges were filed.
He has since been allowed to reopen but has yet to do so.
But Knowlton said that doesn't solve a thing. It certainly didn't help his son, who returned to his same
destructive habits when he came home.
He said prosecutors and child protection workers have been eager for him and his son to help convict
Intagliata of abuse. But no one seems to take an interest in helping Corey.
As a result, Knowlton said he's more frustrated by a broken behavioral health system than he is by the
mistakes of a pastor who may have gotten in over his head.
"I have no malice toward him at all," Knowlton said. "I have more malice for those that won't help Corey."
The father has worked to mend his tattered relationship with his son. Today, Knowlton said, he's on
good terms with Corey, who is living nearby with a cousin and seems to be more stable.
But Knowlton knows his son still needs help. He knows the reform school left more than physical scars.
He knows because on a long drive recently, Corey turned to his father and asked if the road trip was a
"You're not taking me somewhere again, are you?" Knowlton recalls his son asking.
"No, Corey, I'm not," the father said. "That was a mistake. I'm not doing that again."
Reporter Matthew Franck:
Two newer schools mirror Mountain Park
By Matthew Franck
Of the Post-Dispatch
11/18/2002 09:37 AM
There's fire in the eyes and passion in the souls of the true believers at a place called Thanks to
And when the director of the small but expanding teen reform school calls six of his best students to
line up on the front porch, they practically have to fight each other for their turn to testify to a visitor.
"I was a slave to sin," says a young man who has been at the school for two years and plans to stay
at least two more.
"God called me," says another.
"Sin brought me here," says a third teen, who once flirted with gangs and now feels drawn to a life in
They are each the products of one of the teen reform schools that abide by the same doctrine and
protocol of Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy.
Finding the isolated, rural schools isn't easy.
The Thanks to Calvary Boarding School, which houses about 65 teens, hugs the banks of the Big Piney
and Gasconade rivers in folds of the Ozarks. To get there, you'd have to first track down a place called
Devil's Elbow near Waynesville, then pick the right unpaved road and follow it two miles to a small
cluster of trailers and modest buildings.
The Agape Boarding School with its 125 students near Stockton doesn't promote itself through
advertising or the Internet. Instead, its proud, 150-acre complex — with solid, functional buildings, pool
and covered basketball court — has grown quietly by word of mouth.
Both Agape and Thanks to Calvary started with a few students and in just a few years formed thriving,
expanding ministries. Agape came to the state in 1996 after hassles with regulators in Washington
state. Thanks to Calvary opened four years ago.
Leaders of the schools say they are not tied to Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy, but they
share the same fundamentalist Baptist approach. Nathan Day, who runs Thanks to Calvary, is a former
Mountain Park employee.
Both Agape and Thanks to Calvary display pictures of the late Rev. Lester Roloff, who inspired the
formation of schools like Mountain Park. But unlike Mountain Park, the two newer reform schools
welcome visits by the news media and allowed selected students to be interviewed.
Inside, the schools' unforgiving discipline was in full view, but several boys said they welcomed and
were grateful for the strict approach.
Yes sirs and amens
The sprawling campus of Agape Boarding School belies the school's rigid structure. The place is nearly
overrun with horses, livestock and what may be one of the largest collections of exotic animals in the
Students at the school learn to care for camels, zebra, bison, water buffalo and emus. There's a catfish
pond and a hobby shop for tying flies and building model cars. School leaders say boys are allowed to
watch football games on a large screen on Sunday afternoons.
Sean Markley, 18, is a recent graduate who is still at the school and is thinking of working there for the
next year. When he arrived three years ago, he said, he resisted the structure and isolation and wanted
to leave: "When I first got here, I thought it was unreal."
But over time, he said, he grew to recognize he needed discipline. He said the school has never
censored his mail or pressured him to accept its faith.
Other students say they can't think of the last time a student was paddled.
Jim Clemensen, who runs the school, said he hasn't swatted a boy for six months, largely because it
invites interference from investigators. "I'm trying to get away from it because of all the flak about it
across the state," he said.
At Thanks to Calvary, students also say that corporal punishment is rarely used. One boy who was
asked how often boys are paddled replied "not as often as we should be."
Day is a former Marine who runs an operation with the efficiency and order of the armed services.
The constant "yes sir" and "amens" that pepper students' conversation attest to the school's marriage
of religion and the military. The 43 boys sleep in a single bunkerlike dorm room with two 35-foot rows of
bunk beds on each side. Elsewhere on the campus, there are signs of both the shoestring
resourcefulness of a new enterprise and a healthy, steady flow of income that comes from a $10,000
A main building features a modern kitchen, offices and a dining hall, but other buildings are not
completely constructed. The narrow, aluminum school building looks more like three trailers stacked on
top of one another. Inside are bare plywood floors.
Like Clemensen, Day said he offers students a variety of recreation, such as canoeing, basketball and
shop. But Day would grant interviews only with students he personally selected.
Plans to grow
Determining how all students might describe their stay at Thanks to Calvary and Agape is difficult.
Unlike Mountain Park, the schools are too new to have alumni old enough to have sorted through their
time there. What is clear is that the newer schools use a similar formula to Mountain Park for turning
In fact, when it comes to daily schedules and policies on communication and contact with family
members, the schools are virtually indistinguishable.
Like Mountain Park, students are required to stay at least a year. Their phone calls home are limited to a
few minutes every two weeks, their mail is screened and their days are filled studying at their own
pace in rows of cubicles.
And like Mountain Park, the newer reform schools reject efforts to require them to get a state license, as
is the norm in most other states.
Clemensen already left one state over regulatory hassles. His school for boys in Othello, Wash., closed
in 1995 after regulators cited it for fire code issues and for not having enough certified teachers.
Clemenson said he came to Missouri specifically because of its lack of regulation. And he and Day said
they would pick up and move from Missouri if they were required to get a state license.
Day said even if the regulations were mild, he would object to the state having oversight of a ministry
that he believes should answer only to biblical truths.
"If we were forced to regulate, we would shut our doors," Day said.
For now, neither school seems to consider that even a remote possibility.
At Agape, Clemensen is laying the foundation for a 96-student dorm. And Day is looking to double the
acreage of Thanks to Calvary by buying neighboring property.
At the moment, he said, the young school has "unlimited growth potential."
Reporter Matt Franck:
By the Handbook
Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy's parent-student handbook contains several rules that are at
odds with state standards for licensed residential programs and juvenile detention centers. In particular,
Mountain Park places severe restrictions on students' ability to communicate by telephone and mail. The
school's handbook also includes several rules for parents. The following are excerpts from the
"Believing that lawsuits are prohibited by Scripture," all parents must agree to handle disputes through
out-of-court arbitration. "All arbitrators must be born-again Christians."
At the threat of having their child removed, parents are told to: "NEVER tell your child when he/she is
coming home. . . . Our influence will be undermined at this point." And "NEVER keep secrets. Do not
attempt to hide any information concerning your plans or your child's attitude/behavior from (school)
"All mail is read by (school) staff. The students' outgoing mail will not be censored in any way. Be
prepared to read, 'They starve me,' 'They beat me.' 'They work me.' 'I hate this place.' 'You must come
and get me,' etc."
"Incoming mail may be returned to the parent if the content is not in the best interest of the child."
"Parents call in; students do not call out, except in an emergency." And during calls, "students must
speak in English."
"BE PREPARED FOR YOUR FIRST PHONE CALL!
On your first call you may hear, 'How could you do this to me? You must come get me! You are ruining
my life. I cannot stay here! How long do I have to stay? etc?'
'Dear daughter/son, we called to tell you how much we love you and how much you mean to us. We
are not going to discuss this with you. If you continue, we will hang up the phone.'
'You can't hang up on me!'
'CLICK!!' Do not debate, explain, or counsel. Simply hang up
SECOND PHONE CALL
She/he may regroup and try again. 'I can't believe you hung up on me! You must talk to me about this!
They tell me I must be here for over a year, maybe even two years! I can't do this! You're ruining my life!'
'Dear daughter/son, we called to tell you how much we love you and how much you mean to us. We
are not going to discuss this with you. If you continue, we will hang up the phone.'
'You can't hang up on me!'
'CLICK!!' Do not debate, explain, or counsel. Simply hang up.
THIRD PHONE CALL
New tactics may be attempted by the third call. Demanding did not work, so conformity may. 'Folks,
please don't hang up. I am sorry for the way I behaved before. I know that I have been a disappointment
to you. But, really, you will not need to leave me here for a whole year. Can't we discuss this like
'Dear daughter/son, we called to tell you . . ."
'Please talk with me. I'm being nice. At least tell me you will think about it.'
'CLICK!' Do not debate, explain, or counsel. Simply hang up. Continue this until you have control."
In the event of an illness or death in the family, parents are discouraged from breaking the news to
students directly, which might create "an opportunity for the student's emotional manipulation of the
family." Parents are advised against allowing a child to attend a funeral. "The risk to the student's
opportunity to continue in school must be the first priority."
"Parents must be aware that medical concerns are occasionally used by students as a ploy to get off
"(The school) must have the freedom to make decisions concerning your child's status of orientation
and opportunity for service. Parents must refrain from giving (the school) directives concerning any
area of orientation or service. . . . If at any time you feel you must give us some directive in areas of
orientation or service, simply come remove your child from the academy."
If parents take their child out of Mountain Park earlier than one year, all tuition for the uncompleted year
is due immediately "as liquidated damage."
Parents traveling home with graduating seniors are told to make sure their child continues to abide by
school standards of dress and conduct "until you are at least one hundred miles from our ministry."
Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, copyright 2002.
Would Regulate Teen Reform Schools, December 11, 2002, Matthew Franck.
Father’s Choice, November 19, 2002, Matthew Franck
Schools Mirror Mountain Park, November 18, 2002, Matthew Franck
Schools Find A Haven Here, November 17, 2002, Matthew Franck
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